Never been to heaven.

Dear friends,

Since I’m back in my hometown today (unfortunately, to attend a funeral), I’m offering an encore presentation of an essay about living in my favorite little town.

I’m feeling nostalgic. And teary, as you might imagine. I think this will perk me up.

With gratitude {for happy memories},

Joan, who’s glad to be home, even for a day

Never been to heaven.

First published May 10, 2009.

I get a strange feeling sometimes that I can’t quite explain.

In an instant, time rolls back 30 years and I’m transported. Wait, that’s not exactly right because 30 years ago I was precisely where I am now. It’s more like time doesn’t exist, the years and miles never intervened, and I am transfixed in a place where I’ve always been.

It’s not quite deja vu, because instead of feeling a compelling sense of familiarity or repeated experience, I feel an odd sense of time standing still. It’s not that I’ve experienced the moment in the past, but more like the moment never passed.

In December 1978, I turned 16. A few months later, my mother and father pooled their savings to buy me a 1968 Mustang with a price tag of $900. With a 289 engine and a three-speed on the floor, my little pea-green, notchback pony was a fast ride. The only problem was it took me months to figure out the clutch. During most of the summer of 1979, I could be seen killing my car on hills, railroad tracks and at stop signs all over Mayberry. My neighbor Steve, who I mention often in this space, was at that time my friend Steve. And after a few weeks of seeing me repeatedly pop the clutch, he nicknamed my car “the Frog.” I didn’t get it at first but then he explained: it’s green and it hops around town.

Like most 16-year-olds with wheels of their own, I spent every spare moment in the Frog, often accompanied by the Js. When gas shot up to 50 cents a gallon, my mother tried to put a moratorium on my excessive driving, but I somehow found a way to drag Main more often than not. And somewhere along the way, I developed a dangerously leaden foot.

One of my friends dated a boy who lived just a few doors north from the home I live in now on Pecan Street. And one evening while cruising in the Frog with the Js, we decided to drive by his house after a Sonic run. For reasons I don’t now recall, I cruised down Pecan at 80 miles an hour. A slight crest in the road just south of the boy’s home sent us airborne. Back then, nobody wore seat-belts, so a split second after our fannies landed back in our seats, our drinks landed on our heads after having splashed off the Frog’s headliner.

Some days when I sit on my porch and watch the lazy traffic roll past Magpie Manor, I try to imagine what I would do if a car full of young girls drove down my street at three times the legal speed. At those moments, I feel alarmingly old.

But sometimes, when I’m driving my current low-slung coupe with its quick clutch and six-speed manual transmission, the strange feeling of time standing still envelops me.

Once it happened on a snowy night while driving home from work. At a stop sign two blocks south of my house, the heel of my sling-back pump caught on the floor mat and I accidentally popped the clutch. With my left hand on the steering wheel and my right hand on the stick-shift, I was suspended in a moment of silence after killing my engine. There was no one else on the street. It was just me, lulled in the moonlit hush of a town taking refuge indoors on a winter night, watching the faint sweep of snowflakes on my windshield. And in that hypnotic moment when I didn’t even breathe, I was not 46 years old with a husband and two kids awaiting my arrival at home. I was 16, and stopped at the intersection between my mother’s home and the 30 years that would carry me to big white house on Pecan Street.

Last week it happened on the long stretch of blacktop that runs north from Tulsa to Mayberry. I was driving home after Fleetwood Mac and it was nearly midnight. I rarely listen to music in the car, but in my post-concert exuberance, I turned on the radio and found it was already tuned to a ‘70s station. The music brought back memories of the many days and nights I burned up that same highway in the Frog, including one late night when curiosity got the best of me and I pressed the accelerator all the way to the floor until my speedometer was pegged.

As that memory flooded my mind, it crowded out my better sense. And inexplicably, an old favorite song — Never been to heaven — came on the radio. I rolled down my window, turned up Three Dog Night, shifted into sixth gear, and pressed the accelerator all the way down to the floor until my speedometer was pegged.

I’ve never been to heaven. But I am living — deliriously and dreamily — in a place called Oklahoma.

Traces.

Dear friends,

Not long ago I was helping Mr. Mom clean house and, as I dusted the family photos around my desk, I lingered on the tiniest one — a black and white photo not much bigger than a postage stamp in a pink frame.

The young woman in the photo is both achingly familiar and long lost to me. In my mind’s eye, she is who I am. In the mirror, only traces of her remain.

I thought about my mother — about how much I miss her, about how I have stacks of photos of her at about age 5 right up until her death a little more than a year ago. And, yet, when I think of my mother, I instantly visualize her as she looked in her early 40s. The photos I have of her from that era are the ones that most say “Mom” to me.

Perhaps it is because that’s the age she moved us “home.”  I was 10 and my mother was 43 and she moved us from the city in which she had always lived to the place I call my hometown. I lived there until I went away for college; she eventually left, too, a few years later. But the pull of the place was so strong I moved back to my hometown 25 years later — with a husband and two kids and a passel of pets in tow. And, somehow, I think the way my mother looked when she moved us to that town — that town that became my true north — is how my mother will always appear in my memory.

I wonder how my children will think of me when I’m gone. Surely, it won’t be as the young woman in the pink frame that they never knew. The photo was taken in my mid-20s. I was unmarried. Shy, but confident enough to smile at a photographer. Happy, at having just presided over a successful professional conference (thus, the banquet table). Full of hope for my relationship with Mr. Mom and all that I dreamed a future family would bring.

I wonder — will my children think of me as the young mother of toddlers, a brunette usually sporting a pony-tail and who was perpetually harried? Or will they think of the mother of their middle-school years, the thinner red-head who dressed a little more stylishly but was no less harried thanks to graduate school? Or will they think of the mother I am now, the one who uprooted them from the town they loved growing up in as much as I did, but who was in search of a distinctly unharried, integrated life and who insisted they come along for the ride? Or will they remember me as a mother I am yet to become, who neither of us really knows yet but is somewhere to be found within the woman in my mind’s eye?

What will they say is the essence of the mother they remember, the one they loved and hated, clung to and pushed away, idolized and vilified?

Perhaps it is a fool’s chore to ponder these questions, but I can’t help myself. Mothers must pine for immortality because we raise children and look longingly into their eyes for traces of ourselves.  Do we glimpse the best of ourselves or the worst? An amalgam of contradictions as confounding as our own?

Truly, I hope they remember a bit of my mother in me. After all, the woman in my mind’s eye is but a derivation of the mother I remember, the kind I strive to be, one so loved her absence is felt every day despite her frailties and failures, one whose heart spilled over with love for her children and the promise of their children.

One who reached toward every day with the knowledge the day is never enough and yet all there is to be a mother.

With gratitude {for today},

Joan, who knows missing her mother this much is a kind of a gift

One little teary burst of joy.

Dear friends,

Before I started this blog, before I moved from Oklahoma to my new life here, I poured my heart and soul into a blog and into a life rooted in my hometown. I called my town Mayberry for every reason you can imagine having to do with the good and true souls who live there.

For three years I wrote about the place and the people I love most. I retired that blog when we moved because . . . well, because how could I possibly blog about Mayberry and its people from afar?

And then, like the ninny I am, I failed to routinely back-up my beat-up laptop. Just before Christmas, my four-year-old MacBook Pro died a sudden death, taking with it many treasured photos, essays, and all the files associated with my former blog.

Some very bright college students have spent the last two weeks refurbishing my laptop and recovering many of my files. I got my laptop back last night and began sifting though the recovered files, many of them corrupted, but some of them readable.

I tripped across one of my stories, filed under a name I didn’t recognize. As I began reading, I had no memory of writing it or publishing it on my blog, but the experience it relates from two years ago came rushing back to me in a flood of happy memories. I sat in my chair and cried — tears of joy — not over a recovered file because how silly is that? I cried because that day is so very clear to me and the memory so very precious to me.

I hope you enjoy the story. I was blessed to have lived it.

With gratitude {for being reminded of a day when I found joy in everything I saw},

Joan, who has finally realized, duh, she’s just a teensy bit homesick

Gone and Away

Mr. Mom and I have been away from home for almost two weeks.  It feels like forever. We got home last night, exhausted from travel and worry and stress of all varieties, including the news that one of my colleagues died while I was gone after a long battle with Lymphoma.

This morning I arose early, anxious to put on my running shoes and soak in my beloved hometown.  I ran seven miles, striding long and strong as if every step would somehow pound Mayberry back into my homesick soul.

I ran through the center of town past a small boy in a blue windbreaker creating a grand thoroughfare in his front yard with nothing more than a tiny plastic shovel, while his watchful mother drank coffee in her pajamas on their porch.

I ran past the edge of town and through the cemetery where I thought of my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and all of my memories of them so rooted in this place.

I ran down country roads, past cow pastures so green they were the color of fake plastic grass in an Easter basket.

I ran past modest white and grey farmhouses and big red barns and tranquil ponds surrounded by undulating and endless fields so peaceful they always make me think country living must be like a dream.

I ran down deserted gravel roads where nary a soul drove by, past herds of cows who ignored me and two horses who nodded and snorted hello.

I ran past wildflowers twisting into barbed-wire fences and a thicket of purple peonies in full bloom by a small stream.

I ran by a man making slow progress mowing what had to be a 10-acre yard, kicking up cut grass so fragrant and sweet it was like 50 summer evenings concentrated into one.

I ran up a long, steep hill that led me back to town and into the edge of a dark blue-grey sky and heavy spring air that threatened the kind of Oklahoma thunderstorm that thrills me.

And about a mile from home, just as my legs started to tire a bit, I ran past a white car driven by my friend Julie’s mother, who gave me the kind of big smile and exaggerated wave an older woman gives a younger one she’s known for 40 years.

As I waved back, a swirl of cold spring air swept over me and a flurry of goosebumps arose on my arms and neck.  But it wasn’t the gust that tickled me, I figured.

It was the essence of Mayberry, seeping under my skin and into my bones and pulsing though my heart, welcoming me home.

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